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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 2, 2011

A fairytale comes to life
Kids from many cultures sign and sing on stage as one

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The audience kept on clapping last Thursday night as the second-graders took their bows from the Guilderland Elementary School stage.

Vaishnavia Balaji, who had just moved from India to Guilderland two weeks before, sparkled from head to toe, dressed in a long gown with pearls at her neck, as she sung with her classmates.

There was a song between every scene of the fast-paced version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”

The three bears delivered their lines — both in words and in American Sign Language — with verve. The on-stage narrators were equally adept at sign language, and beamed at the applause.

Last out to take their bows were the kids who worked behind the scenes on the production, each proudly wearing a T-shirt labeled “Stage Crew” in capital letters.

Everyone had a part to play and each seemed happy with the role. Electricity was in the air as their teacher, Tammie Mirabile, joined them on stage, applauding as enthusiastically as the crowd of family members and friends.

Mirabile’s class of 24 has 10 students who are learning to speak English as a second language. They come from Russia, India, Japan, and Korea.

“Guilderland is very well known in South Korea,” Mirabile said this week. Apartments in the elementary school’s cachment area, she said, attract foreign scholars on internships at the University at Albany, with many coming from India as well. “When they get home, they spread the word about the school,” she said.

Mirabile incorporates her students’ diverse talents and cultures into everyday routines in her classroom. For an example, when there is a transition from teaching one subject to another, some of her Indian students may do a dance. “It gives them a chance to show their culture,” she said.

Learning in action

Mirabile’s class works together each year on an end-of-second-grade gathering for their families, which starts with a café meal, a longstanding tradition for Mirabile. Nutrition is part of the second-grade curriculum and the students plan the menu themselves.

“Children need to take responsibility for their own eating habits at that age,” said Mirabile. “They need to say, ‘I need some fruits and vegetables.’”

The Guilderland Theater Café had a grand opening Thursday evening when Mirabile cut a ribbon, then a student host and hostess seated the families. The long cafeteria tables looked festive covered with white cloths and set with red plates.

Students served as wait staff for their café guests and also provided entertainment. Emily Park, a Korean girl who has taken cello lessons for years, was a standout at this year’s café.

“She’s awesome,” said Mirabile. “The cello is almost bigger than she is. It’s a good way for her to shine.”

An art gallery of student work was set up along the walls of the cafeteria. “I hold the children’s artwork all year,” said Mirabile. “I don’t like to see it crumpled in their backpacks, taken home on the bus.” At the end of the evening, parents carefully transport the artwork home.

 “We take real money and talk about how we have to pay our bills,” said Mirabile of running the café. In the end, profits and tip money are donated to the Guilderland food pantry, usually totaling around $250.

The show and beyond

Throughout the evening, Mirabile was the quiet center of a diverse group of supportive parents and eager children.

Mirabile always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She grew up as the middle child among five siblings. “I tried to keep order in the house,” she said.

Her first teaching job was in a two-room schoolhouse in Killington, Vt., where President Calvin Coolidge had gone to school.

She taught there for four years, beginning with a class of seven, three of them siblings. She left with a class of 15, ranging in age from kindergartners to third-graders. The kids went to school four days a week and skied on the fifth day.

Mirabile’s husband is from the Albany area so, in 1989, she got a job teaching at Westmere Elementary School. She had three deaf boys in her class that first year and, although they had a sign-language interpreter, Mirabile wanted to be able to communicate with them herself.

She took night classes to learn American Sign Language. Several years into teaching classes at Westmere that included hearing-impaired children, Mirabile had a student whose parent suggested putting on a play using sign language. The production was a success.

When a new elementary school was built in the mid-1990s and the district was reconfigured, Mirabile offered to go wherever needed and ended up at Guilderland Elementary School.

“I didn’t have deaf students anymore, but I didn’t want to lose that,” she said of teaching with sign language. She brought over her sign-language alphabet along with her regular alphabet and posted both on her classroom wall. She teaches spelling in sign, and gives her students instructions, like lining up for lunch, in sign language.

For years, she’s taught sign language at Guilderland Elementary’s after-school session during four Fridays in March. Then this year, she expanded the sign-language club to meet once a week all year long. More than half of her class signed up. They’ve learned the school song, and now sign it on stage at every assembly.

When the decision was made to do a sign-language play this year, the kids tried out by voice and by sign. Music teacher Diana Ackner made the play into a musical, teaching songs during music class to fit the play’s plot.

The kids learned their parts by voice first, and then started signing in December, working from scripts where Mirabile had inserted sign pictures.

“I was amazed how wonderfully it came out,” she said this week.

The performers learned about more than just signing. Anna Pacolczak, for example, who played Mama Bear, was nervous all day on Thursday, said Mirabile. “She’s very sensitive and had stage fright,” she said. Anna played her part perfectly and, after the show, her teacher reported, she said, “I did it; I’m not afraid anymore.”

Christian Adam, playing Papa Bear, is a naturally outgoing person, said his mother, Mary Beth Adam. He’s eager to use his sign language when he gets to Farnsworth Middle School where deaf children are integrated into the classes. “He’ll be the first one to greet them,” said his mother.

Mirabile said she’s told the students in her sign-language club, “When you get to middle school, the children I taught at Westmere will be there with you. Won’t it be nice to say hello?”

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